My family of four has been planning a trip to Southeast Asia for several years.  As our kids have grown older (now 16 and 12), we decided this would be the year we showed them Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.  Of course getting there from Raleigh/Durham would mean long flights to reach the other side of the world (literally).

As a Delta Lifetime Platinum, my traveling companions and I are granted complimentary access to Economy Comfort seating.  EC is Delta’s version of Premium Economy, consisting of the first few rows of coach.  The seating is just as uncomfortably narrow as every other row of coach, but the spacing (seat pitch) is said to be 4 inches greater, and the recline of EC seats is claimed to be 4 inches better than regular coach seats.  Entertainment (movies, etc.) are free, and the alcohol is supposed to flow, well, like wine.

On flights over an hour or so up to three hours, my experience is that EC is slightly more comfortable than ordinary coach, but on long overseas legs, such as the 14 hours of flying ATL to Tokyo, enduring the flight in EC seats is far superior to the torture back in sardine class.

FEBRUARY 15 – BOOK EARLY TO GAURANTEE GOOD SEATS

Since one can only select Economy Comfort seats if they are available, the wise traveler books early to assure seats are open.  In my case, that is, booking not one but four seats, with the need to keep all four seats together on each of multiple flight legs, it behooves me to book extra early.

And that’s exactly what I did:  For outbound flights RDU/HKG in mid-December, I bought our tickets on February 15, a full ten months before our trip.  This made Delta a bit over $10,000 richer, and me poorer by the same amount.

The itinerary was RDU/ATL/SEA/HKG out, and BKK/NRT/ATL/RDU return.  I was delighted to book Delta’s Seattle/Hong Kong nonstop flight (who wants to change planes in Narita?), and I was even happier to get very good Economy Comfort seats on all six flights.  When it was done, I breathed an audible sigh of relief (so my wife remembers).  Thank goodness the flights and seats were secured.  One big worry behind us.

Or so I thought.  Delta didn’t care and has been tormenting me at regular intervals ever since.

FEBRUARY 26 – DELTA CHANGES OUR ITINERARY

Just eleven days after putting over ten grand on Delta’s ledger, I got a notice that the carrier had changed our outbound itinerary to RDU/LAX/SEA/HKG.  Okay, I figured, putting us on the nonstop Raleigh to L.A. flight was not bad—until I saw that Delta had dumped every seat on every flight, both out and return.  Luckily, I was able to respond to the notice quickly (not always possible when we are busy), and I managed to reacquire all but one of the good seats I’d chosen when I’d first booked and paid for the flights.  Whew!  I could relax again, yes?  No.

JULY 10 – DELTA CHANGES OUR ITINERARY AGAIN

I checked our December flights out of idle curiosity (and perhaps motivated by a tinge of paranoia) in early July and did not find any changes.  But on July 10 I received a notice that our itinerary had once more been modified.  Suddenly we were flying RDU/MSP/SEA/HKG outbound, because the nonstop SEA/HKG flight had moved up 2.5 hours earlier than before.  Checking our seats, I found that all my carefully selected selections on all legs were gone.  Frantically, I went through each flight and chose as many of the same seats as I could, but this time some of the bulkhead seats were not available, forcing me to move my family back a row.  Okay, still in EC, but not as comfortable as the seats I had.

This time I called Delta’s Elite line to complain and to ask, What gives?  The agent I spoke with was professional and genuinely polite.  Her sympathies, however, were constrained by her inability to promise that it wouldn’t happen again.  She explained that Delta’s systems routinely and automatically eliminated pre-existing seat selections for the slightest one-minute schedule change, even if the aircraft type, flight number, or routing had not changed.  She further explained that their system should not have dumped my selections on flights that had not changed, but she had no explanation for why it had happened, nor could she assure me that it would not occur again.

On this dismaying news, I began to think that I should not have booked on Delta.  After fifty years of flying, and more than forty on Delta (with over five million miles to show for it), I thought I’d have at least the privilege of permanent seat selections.  I also began to regret that I had given them more than ten thousand bucks to use for ten months before they had to provide anything in return for it.  Foolish me.

SEPTEMBER 6 – DELTA STRIKES AGAIN

Over the summer I got into the habit of checking the December flights weekly, looking for more surprises.  In early September I received another “Delta Messenger” email with a big outbound itinerary change:  RDU/MSP/SEA/NRT/HKG.  It appeared that Delta had dropped its nonstop flight Seattle to Hong Kong, forcing us instead to connect through Tokyo (SEA/NRT and NRT/HKG).  Nerves on edge, I once again went through each flight to select new seats.  I was partially relieved to discover that only our outbound seats had been affected (even those on the same domestic flights as before).  Seats selected on the return flights BKK/NRT/ATL/RDU were intact and unchanged.  However, the best seats on the Seattle/Narita and Narita/Hong Kong flights were gone, and I had to take what I could get.  Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, and once again a very polite and patient agent told me that there was absolutely nothing they could do to help me.  I began to wonder why they were there at all if they could not do anything.

SEPTEMBER 15 – THE TORMENT CONTINUES

Barely more than a week later came another Delta Messenger email with another radical itinerary change on the flights out:  RDU/ATL/NRT/HKG.  So now it appeared we had been changed to connect through Atlanta instead of MSP and SEA to get to Narita; no explanation why.  Leaving a meeting I was attending, I responded to the notice within 5 minutes of receipt, but no matter.  All the decent EC seats on the Atlanta/Narita nonstop were taken, and I had to select the back row of EC to get four seats together for my family.  Another call to Delta was a carbon copy of the others:  Can’t help you, but we sure appreciate your many decades of loyalty and the fact that you were dumb enough to lend us ten grand for ten months, interest-free.  Oh, and it very well could keep on happening because December is still three months away.  Good luck!

OPTIONS?

I could get a refund—a full refund—from Delta.  I asked them.  Before doing that, I’d want to make sure that I could book alternate airlines at reasonable fares.  Checking several air carrier sites directly and kayak.com, I found fares as low as $2159 (compared to our $2540) round trip, but they were in ordinary (sardine class) economy.  The cheapest premium economy fares start at $3336 per person (Cathay and partner AA) if booked now for the December dates.  No comparable fares.

(But it is tempting to spend the extra $796 per person to fly on Cathay.  After all, Cathay’s premium economy is 38 inches and 20 inches wide, with upgraded meals and other very nice perks that Delta EC doesn’t have (see this video for the amazing difference), and it’s only two flights to get there (RDU/ORD, ORD/HKG) compared to Delta’s three.  Multiplying that fare difference times four, however, means paying $3,184 more, a deal killer.)

Of course we could take the refund and not make the trip, but we have prepaid for hotels in Hong Kong, in Singapore, on Koh Lipe island in Thailand, and in Bangkok.  More importantly, this trip will seal a lifetime memory in the kids, and that’s more important than my frustration at being helpless and jerked around by Delta.

Nonetheless, the question remains, Why does Delta torment me so?  I believe the answer is simple: because it has a much stronger commitment to making money than to real, sincere customer service.  Delta Elite CS agents are well-trained to be polite and knowledgeable, but they have been stripped of the discretionary decision-making such agents once had to make things right for customers.

In other words, Delta torments me because Delta can.

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